“It is hard for even those of us who disagree profoundly with Peterson’s diagnoses of society to fail to empathize with his common struggle to get through being human.”
I accepted the suggestion to review Savage Messiah: How Doctor Jordan Peterson is Saving Western Civilization by Jim Proser with some hesitancy; my expectations were low given such a gleeful title and the very mixed online reviews. Sadly, these expectations were realized. Now, Proser’s book is not without some redeeming characteristics. The segments of the book that focus primarily on biography are interesting enough, and Proser brings an admirable intensity to his descriptions of Peterson’s spiritual and personal struggles. His characterizations are moving and engaging. Where the book falters—indeed stumbles into unbridled cheese—is when it deals with the political and philosophical issues at stake. The late Philip Roth wisely said that while a novel about a good son might be interesting, one written by a good son cannot be. This is because all interesting nuances and shades of gray fall by the wayside when the goal is to make an idol of the subject matter. Proser routinely falls into this trap. Indeed, Proser is often more dogmatic than Peterson himself on many issues, which is saying quite a lot. Rather than digging into deep questions raised by the subject matter, Proser is content to lean on platitudes, condemnation, fawning praise for those he agrees with, and a level of hyperbole that would make Kanye West proud. The result is a book that offers unstinting praise for its controversial subject without describing what makes his beliefs and philosophies both interesting and fallible.
If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…
Before I jump into that, I will further discuss some of the book’s redeeming qualities. To begin with, Proser writes in an accessible and involved way. Savage Messiah would have been far more intellectually interesting if he actually interrogated some of the issues brought up in the course of its 300 pages. But the boon of not doing so is the prose skips along with scarcely a blip or dangerous temptation to think critically. This accessibility is crucial to getting through some of the earlier sections of the book, which are genuinely moving. These sections describe Peterson coming of age as a middle-class kid in rural Alberta (for non-Canadians, this is isolated even by our standards). As depicted by Proser, Jordan Peterson comes across as an intense youth always searching for bigger answers than anyone around him can provide. The world to Peterson then—as now—appears in primary colors and is defined by sharp distinctions. His natural curiosity and investment in people complicates such a worldview, since as Kant might say, “out of the crooked timber of humanity nothing straight was ever made.” And it is to Peterson’s credit that he—often enough—sought to understand this complexity, rather than reduce it to ideological simplicity. But as Proser describes it, the coming of age process was not easy; the young Peterson struggled with alcohol, religious uncertainty, and overwhelming feelings of existential anxiety and depression. This continues to the present day, as he battles ongoing depression, as well as concerns about his family’s health and well-being. It is hard for even those of us who disagree profoundly with Peterson’s diagnoses of society to fail to empathize with his common struggle to get through being human. Anyone who reads Savage Messiah will at least come away feeling they know Peterson ze man a bit better, which I suspect is what many readers want. Proser also does a reasonably good job summarizing many of Peterson’s concrete positions on psychology, meaning, and the relationship between order and chaos. There is little in the way of academic analysis or deep engagement; everything operates at the level of laudatory exegesis. But readers just looking for an easy summary of the basics of Peterson’s worldview could do worse than Proser’s book.
One of the other pluses is that Savage Messiah is it is more willing than some to gesture towards the thinking of Peterson’s intellectual and political opponents. Ironically, Proser probably cites more post-modern and leftist figures than Peterson himself in his writing. However, as we shall see reading and treating carefully are two very different exercises. But in a world where the Intellectual Dark Web has a bad habit (discussed here) of relying on ambiguous terms such as “post-modern neo-Marxism” as catch-all neologisms lacking any specificity, Proser earns a few points for being original and actually referring to a few concrete sources. Unfortunately, however, these few redeeming qualities are not enough to redeem the books many sins, which I will now address.
How Hard Is It To Get “The Left” Right?
“…Everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world system sincerely applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure us getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else. Indeed, from one point of view, Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everyone; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions, seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.”
George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell describes living as a working-class coal miner in the north of England. He came away from the experience convinced that the capitalist system was fundamentally unfair—and that socialism needed to be ushered in. Indeed, near the end of his life in Why I Write, Orwell famously opined that, “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for Democratic Socialism, as I understand it.” And yet much of The Road to Wigan Pier is written as an all too knowing critique of socialists. Orwell paints progressives as driven by resentment, indifferent to the actual amelioration of suffering, as well as enamored with throwing around pretentious terms such as dialectical materialism, overdetermination of the social form, or post-modern neo-Marxism, in lieu of actual argument and analysis (one of those terms, of course, doesn’t belong). The Road to Wigan Pier remains a classic because it both endorses the aspirations of socialism while also recognizing the flaws of actual socialists, painting a complex picture of the world which feels lived in and authentic. It is also cited numerous times by Proser as a tract unambiguously condemning socialism and leftism. That tells you a lot.
Compare this rich, grounded and open-minded attitude to the following. In the course of Savage Messiah, Jordan Peterson gets compared to or lumped together with Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell (both socialists and pacifists), Carl Jung, Nietzsche, and even Jesus. Proser associates Peterson with the first two since both socialist authors were published by Routledge Press, which is the, “pinnacle of achievement in many academic circles.” And, he is correct. Sadly, Proser neglects to mention that—alongside Einstein, Russell, and Peterson—Routledge has also published Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and a number of other authors Proser probably would not much care for, even though their views might be closer to the politics expressed in Einstein’s classic essay “Why Socialism?” Moving on, for Proser, Peterson has, “unleashed a maelstrom of global hatred against him, a private citizen not seeking office or personal notoriety, that was probably unprecedented in human history.” One wonders what Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Jesus or any other “private citizens” might have to say about that. Where some might see Peterson’s multi-million dollar lawsuit against Wilfrid Laurier University for defamation as somewhat incidental to his concerns (and not a little contradictory given his insistence on the freedom to offend), for Proser, this legal dispute signified that, “the battle for Western civilization was now near full fury.” Canada’s New Democratic Party (or “National Democratic Party,” as Proser once strangely called it)—despite never once forming the national government and currently being in control of a single provincial legislature out of ten—has, nevertheless, “infiltrated” various human rights committees, universities, and the minds of the youth to push a powerful totalitarian agenda. According to Proser, even Justin Trudeau was part of this scam, ascending to leadership of the NDP to implement a dangerous progressive agenda across Canada. Unfortunately, this never happened, and Trudeau the Younger was always a supporter of of the centrist Liberal Party, following in the footsteps of his esteemed father, Pierre. Drifting away from Peterson for a few page, Prose describes Ben Shapiro as a “Millennial juggernaut,” who graduated “cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2007” and is “smart, highly informed, and generally princely in difficult conversations.” By contrast, the feminist Peggy McIntosh (also a Harvard grad and currently a professor at the prestigious Wellesley College,) is apparently a “fringe academic” peddling “unfounded assumptions” and “atrocious” scholarship. Why is never explained.
I could multiply this list indefinitely since the book is loaded to the brim with these kinds of hyper-partisan ruminations. As Proser presents it, the Left is motivated by instincts which are “totalitarian.” The Left, for Proser, is comprised of criticisms of books by “old white men,” as well as demands for curricular diversity comparable to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany and so on. By contrast Jordan Peterson’s thinking is “profound,” Donald Trump is “golden haired,” and Milo Yiannopolous (who chummed around with actual Nazis) was an “early internet provocateur.” The one sidedness is amusing for a few pages before it becomes a chore as the book drags on. When Proser moves from strict biography to this relentless sabre rattling, his text becomes a boring slog. This would be a forgivable slight in a book which was intended as nothing more than a one-sided polemic against the Left ala the latest Dinesh D’Souza conspiracy theory. However, Proser clearly intends for it to be more; he is, after all, talking about a university professor fighting for the soul Western civilization by defending theses on “Freud, Jung, and Shakespeare’s Pericles” against faculty members critical of Jungian politics. If one has pretensions to reach that high, one better approach all sides and elements of the dispute seriously and rigorously. Yet hundreds of pages are devoted to one-sided analysis, insults, and often simple misinterpretations of everyone Proser and Peterson do not like—but do not appear to have dealt with carefully. Depicting Derrida—a philosopher who argued that texts were so rich with infinite possible interpretations and meanings that we could never get to the foundationalist bottom of them—as defining a “world drained of meaning” is eye rolling. That is true whatever one thinks of Derrida (and I am not a fan). Describing Adbusters, a modest Canadian counter cultural magazine devoted to undermining and mocking the misinformation spread by marketing and advertisements, as wanting “Soviet totalitarian rule” and “Maoist totalitarian thought” is like comparing a kitten clawing at string to a lion ripping into its prey.
The irony of the entire book—designed as a fawning tribute to an intelligent academic who deserves to have his work treated carefully—is that it often demonstrates the limitations to Peterson’s own arguments. One obvious example is Proser’s unpacking of Petersonian approaches to Nietzsche and Heidegger, particularly their relationship to Christianity. Peterson interprets Nietzsche as a corrective to the excesses of Christian traditionalism but who, nevertheless, saw religion as an occasional counter-force to nihilism. This is to a certain extent true; Nietzsche’s arguments around Christianity were more complex than a simple and triumphalist atheism. But Peterson’s reading is also problematic since it misses the key and venomous Nietzschean sting that Christianity itself is be a way-stop on the road to cultural nihilism. For Nietzsche, Christianity was ultimately a life-denying philosophy that was also deeply culpable in the crisis of meaning we now face. This is because Christianity, as Platonism for the masses, followed the Grecian thinker in denying the reality of this life and world by insisting on its worthlessness. We were to reject life in the here and now and, instead, focus on a transcendent realm where the resentment of the pious would be given full rein—as per Nietzsche’s reading of Tertullian, who insisted that one of the joys in heaven would be the righteous getting to witness the suffering of sinners in hell. Heidegger is even more striking in his criticisms of Western thinking as a whole.
Peterson is savvier than this and is underserved by having his work presented in this matter.
Heidegger is, of course, another favorite thinker of Peterson’s, who is cited at the beginning of 12 Rules for Life. For the Nazi thinker, Western civilization is defined by a fall from Parmenidean bliss. Parmenides insisted that “Being” was one, whole, and perfect. Plato insisted that, in fact, Being was divided between the true and perfect world of the forms, and the shadow realm we inhabited was filled with death. Heidegger regarded Western thinking as playing out the consequences of this claim. The post-modern skepticism we experience now is the inevitable outcome of a history that begins by saying the world we inhabit is not fully there. From there, it is a short step to asserting that the only thing that matters is our technological manipulation and dominance of everything around us to placate human desire—from Plato to NATO, as the saying goes. Christianity played a role in this process as well, with its insistence that God created the world for the sake of human beings. The consequence was that Christians saw the world and, ultimately, even other people as mere objects to be manipulated in the effort to acquire divine power.
Whatever one thinks of Nietzsche and Heidegger, both were reactionaries without reverence. They were unafraid to look at sacred cows and topple them, no matter the damage to our conceits about Western civilization and its glories. Little of this complexity is discussed by Peterson or Proser, though both are happy to invoke the unruly Germans. To read Proser, post-modernity is little more than the outcome of a bunch of 1960’s radicals getting tenure and assigning too many Judith Butler readings to students at elite North American universities. Peterson is savvier than this and is underserved by having his work presented in this matter. However, Peterson does occasionally lean on the same simplistic and partisan narratives when they serve his political inclinations, despite invoking dangerous figures like Nietzsche and Heidegger, who, at least, had the virtue of being thought-provoking. There is a place for deep right-wing critiques of post-modernity that Peterson may one day fill. Proser’s book suggests that Jordan Peterson has the intellectual chops and intense passion to do so. But the book also paints a one-dimensional picture of the crisis we now face in a manner that prefers to point blame at caricatured villains, rather than interrogate his own sacred idols. In so doing, it paradoxically makes Peterson appear small, when the world really needs people to think big.
Matt McManus is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey, and the author of Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism. His new projects include co-authoring a critical monograph on Jordan Peterson and a book on liberal rights for Palgrave MacMillan. Matt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or added on twitter vie @mattpolprof